Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent, NRL.com
On the eve of their season-opening clash against ex-teammate Ben Barba and the Broncos, new Bulldogs co-captain Frank Pritchard says this year's team is closer than the one that staggered their way to the finals last season.
Asked whether he felt this year's squad were more united than last year's, Pritchard simply offered this: "It sure is."
This time last year, the 2012 grand finalists were rocked by news that then-fullback Barba had been stood down by then-CEO Todd Greenberg for breaching the club's code of conduct.
Rumours of gambling and alcohol issues shadowed the former Dally M medallist for the rest of the year as he struggled mentally and physically with the fame that came with being the NRL's latest pin-up boy.
Meanwhile his teammates battled injuries, suspensions and poor form on the field, struggling to a 1-5 start to the season that kept the 2012 grand finalists chasing the top four all year.
Team harmony was so bad that at one point, Barba conceded he became offside with a few of his teammates.
"We had a lot of injuries, suspensions [last year]. In 2012 we went to the grand final and then we started 2013 with six players missing until round six," he said.
"It was pretty bad. We did recover well during the season. We made the top eight, made the semis, but didn't go all the way."
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Pritchard, who was appointed to co-captain the Bulldogs with hooker Mick Ennis last month, said his new role was created to provide more of an off-field presence – a leader who would organise events that "I probably can't talk to you about".
He compared last year's Bulldogs to eventual premiers the Roosters, who proved that you could never have too many egos in the team to be successful.
"The big part of the team going forward," he said, "is getting together away from the field. You see teams like the Roosters who have a great team bonding they do away from the field.
"That's what we need here as well. I'm trying to encourage the boys, you know. We need to get together away from the field to get our mind off footy a bit more. That's how we'll get closer, and that's how we'll win more games.
"It was a bit disruptive last year but this year is a clean slate. That's what I'm going to try and bring to the team this year."
Naturally, the Bulldogs have played down their grudge match against their old teammate, with second-rower Josh Jackson explaining that their loss to Newcastle in last year's finals series was more of a motivation in beating their under-pressure opponents than bringing down the Broncos.
"Just the disappointment of losing that last game up against Newcastle last year, I think everyone was pretty keen to throw the boots on and get back out there as soon as possible," Jackson said.
"So it's been a big pre-season, we've put in the hard yards, used that as a bit of a motivation to get back into this year.
"Straight after it we [talked about it] and it hurt for a while. But it's not so much talking about it, I think people use it as motivation over the pre-season and you do the hard yards.
"Hopefully we can turn up the start of this year and put a few wins together, start off a bit better than we did last year, get a bit of consistency about our game and secure a few wins."
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